Government plans data center for clean energy research

Government plans data center for clean energy research

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Come the summer of 2013, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will use one of the world's most energy efficient data centers to handle complex renewable energy and energy efficiency research.

NREL's High Performance Computer (HPC) center in Golden, Colo., will feature the largest supercomputer dedicated to clean energy research -- one that uses more than 3,200 powerful Intel Xeon microprocessors to run super fast (at peak performance it can crunch more than a thousand trillion floating point operations per second).

The $10 million installation will be one of the first to use Intel's Xeon Phi co-processors (which haven't been released commercially yet). Phi is focused specifically on reducing energy consumption for high-performance computing applications, such as the sophisticated wind modeling simulations that will be run at the NREL facility.

Another key element of the design is a cooling system being developed by Hewlett-Packard that runs warm water through the racks holding the different components of the supercomputer, drawing heat away. 

Taken together, the facility could earn a power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.06 or better. PUE is a data center metric that measures the amount of energy needed to keep servers, hard drives, networking and other data center gear running version the amount of cooling technology it needs. The ideal rating is 1.0.

Most data centers have ratings close to 2.0 -- that means for every watt of power used to run the information technology, one watt of power must be used for cooling and other facility infrastructure. To be precise, the typical data center PUE is 1.92, reports the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"At NREL, we have taken a holistic approach to sustainable computing," says Steve Hammond, NREL Computational Science director. "This new system will allow NREL to increase our computational capabilities while being mindful of energy and water used. We will take advantage of both the bytes of information produced and the BTUs produced. The new HPC system will dramatically improve our modeling and simulations capabilities used to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies as well as energy system integration."

With HP's cooling system, the waste heat from the computer system can be used as a heat source for parts of the data center facility and, possibly, for other areas of the NREL campus. The data center will also be used as a demonstration lab for other organizations seeking to squeeze more energy efficiency of their data center design. 

Intel has so far committed more than $58 million to helping its customers conserve energy. Its innovations have helped businesses save more than 828 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy since 2001.

Data centers currently use about 2 percent of the world's electricity, and that consumption is growing at a rate of 12 percent annually. 

That's why green data centers are a major focus for some of the world's biggest technology companies -- from Apple, which is planning renewable energy installations for its new facility in North Carolina, to Facebook, which is driving the Open Compute Project to help share its best practices with other big data center operators.

For more on the energy efficiency and energy sourcing practices of the world's biggest data centers, check out this Greenpeace report.

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